Cross-Cultural Communication

What difficulties in communication do cross-cultural workers face? How can these best be addressed in various settings?

Resolving Western Hegemony in Africa: Distinguishing the Material from the Spiritual/Relational

WCIU Journal: Cross-Cultural Communications Topic

August 15, 2017

by Jim Harries


Few deny that communication between cultures is today a necessity of escalating importance. In this article I consider a Western “ideal type” (http://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/sociology/webers-ideal-types-definition-meaning-purpose-and-use/43758/) and compare it with an African equivalent. Western people are believers in the material, world who have, by sleight of hand, de-legitimised the divine / spiritual (https://www.academia.edu/s/946b801b0b/the-wests-lonely-contemporary-pilgrimage-secularism-by-sleight-of-hand). African people’s thinking, on the other hand, is rooted in the relational and “spiritual.” How can mutual respect and appropriate levels of understanding can be achieved in the face of such divergent beliefs?

This article finds that cultural differences are reflected in different conceptualizations that are implicitly communicated intra-culturally, but are lost inter-culturally in translation to English. Conceptualizations are the templates for thought that are designed, then constantly renegotiated, by communities of language users (Sharifian 2003, 187). Indigenous people’s languages will only function effectively with their own indigenous conceptualizations. This situation threatens the prospects of universal-global secular education. The new, although at the same time very old, alternative universal I propose in this article is Yhwh, who self-identifies in the Christian Scriptures as the only God of the whole world (Ephesians 4:6). This article discusses detailed strategies for intercultural engagement that might bridge the diverse starting points of African as against Western peoples.

The Western Story of the World

The Western world can be incredulous over so-called “spiritual” worldviews. Many Westerners cannot understand how other people around the world can fail to perceive the cause and effect mechanisms that are to them very clear. If cause and effect mechanisms explain everything, some Western people ask themselves, then what is the need for God, fear of witchcraft, and spirits?

The same Western people may acknowledge that their ancestors have not always understood as they now understand. They consider their ancestors to have been ignorant, pre-enlightened people. They consider enlightenment to have in recent centuries slowly dawned on the West. This enlightenment is assumed still to be advancing, albeit slowly, as every generation improves on their predecessors’ understandings. There is a clear relationship between this view and evolutionary ways of thinking that have long dominated Western academia. Slightly less clear to some, is the way that this idea of “progress” is rooted in Christian teachings. Traditional people tend to see life as cyclical, whereas the Bible talks about a beginning, progress, and an end.

Westerners wonder how it could ever have been different. How could people ever have credited illness to demons, they ask themselves, in the light of conclusive trials that prove it to be of bio-medical origins? Were people with such beliefs to re-appear today, they would presumably be easy to convince of their prior ignorance. How were people duped into offering animal sacrifices, when it is clear to Westerners that prosperity can be had without them? They may even ask themselves, why did people ever bother praying to God, when they can get by just as well without doing so? Why did people in the past take so much trouble to build churches which have little contemporary value, except perhaps as venues for weddings?

The Western world seems to have thought that by misinterpreting God they have gotten rid of him! Things for which in the past they thought they needed his help, they no longer do so. For many in the West, following the secular trend, they see no role for God in their life at all. What they see instead are physical material things, made of atoms and molecules, that work satisfactorily by themselves. This is on the lines of the clock-maker story: God “created the clock, wound it up, and let it go” (https://www.gotquestions.org/deism.html).

For others there never was a clock-maker. Instead, the credit for what we have today goes to chance—a way of thinking very much underscored by the theory of evolution. If everything runs on the basis of natural processes, then nature is sufficient. For Westerners, everything does indeed seem to run on this basis. That which is not understandable through natural processes, is in the West referred to as being super-natural. This category, super-natural, is of the things that people used to believe in before they became enlightened. It is a residual category, when everything else has already been explained, that is up-for-question. It is “residual” because “nature” is defined in such a way as to explain everything that people want explained.

People who conclude that everything can be explained by “nature” do have doubts and hesitations. Such hesitations arise from their humanity. Being sure that they have explained everything that is to be explained does not stop them getting depressed. While they are sure that there is no supernatural, as they have explained everything with recourse only to the category of “natural,” they are at times strangely enthralled—perhaps by a magnificent sunset, perhaps by the joy of parent-hood, by a song, perhaps by moments of incredible peace. They are troubled by what they see around them: Why do people fight and fall out? Why do other people not see the sense that they do? Why can people not put aside feelings of envy or fear of shame? All these hesitations are there: but do not discredit, to them, the discovery that everything can be explained by natural causes. That is important, and has become, in their minds, the basis of everything else, hesitations aside.

Thought Processes of Others, Including Africans

Many other people, meanwhile, have come to observe and see humanity differently. These “others” include Africans who have done and do things differently. For example, some variations of African English make use of the term “supernatural,” but speakers load the term with conceptualizations quite different from those often supposed in the West. Following their different understanding they have followed different strategies and different directions in their efforts at helping mankind. They have different “start-points” from which to discuss everything else.

African people have observed a certain unpredictability and variety in human life. They have observed for example, that some people get sick, while others do not. Some people live relatively fulfilling and happy lives, others do not. Some women are fertile, others are not. Some people are by nature hard working, others are not. Some people are caring and seek to help their neighbors. Others, however, are more selfish and primarily interested in meeting their own desires. Certain people can have a destructive impact on others. They end up stealing, maligning, falsely accusing, misappropriating, and abusing others. The more there are of certain kinds of people, and the more powerful and influential they are, the more the pleasantness of life is likely to be disrupted for others.

It is not easy to predict just how or when the outcome of community life (for life is always about community) will turn out the kinds of undesirable characters we have noted above. Certain patterns do, however, emerge. Successful or happy people are not clueless regarding the origins of their successes. They hypothesize and theorize. Certain habits, certain ways of doing things, certain ways of relating to others, even certain ways of conducting war, herding animals, or cultivating, yield prosperity. It is considered advisable for other people and subsequent generations to follow those ways. Hence customary laws are born.

It is not hard to observe certain powers at work in human community—even if it is harder to precisely predict them. Their unpredictability renders these powers mysterious. To a degree in traditional Africa human beings can be understood as akin to machines, needing inputs like food and producing outputs like children; but actual reality is more complex. Two forces seem to be foundationally responsible for disruption of life’s sanctity. One of these is envy. People are not happy to see others doing better than themselves. Envy drives people into averse and perverse behaviors (Harries 2012). Through shame, people conceal their envy, yet still it acts. Both envy and shame result in behavioral responses. Hence envy it is mysterious; all people have it, few accept having it, yet it is powerful, and frequently destructive. The other mystical power is shame. There are certain things that people would rather not be known about them. There are things they do not want to be seen doing. There are ways in which they would rather not be approached, spoken to, or handled. These things are beyond logic. Everyone must defecate, but being seen defecating is shameful. Words seem to be only sounds, but calling your father by his name instead of by “dad” is shameful. Being found talking to yourself is shameful. Being found to have envy, is shameful. Being bossed around by your wife in public, is shameful. We have already discovered that there are “customary” ways of doing things that are considered to bring success. Not following those ways is considered to be attracting misfortune. People’s divergence from correct ways to be known, is shameful, because of the implication that they are contrary to the common good.

Following the above, life is a complex process of perceiving concealing and avoiding in order to achieve prosperity. Ways of doing things that bring success are elusive, hidden, enshrouded in mystery. People conceal their feelings of envy and what they do out of envy. They may react very antagonistically to avoid shame, even while unable to articulate just what brings them that shame.

These processes are far from the objectivation of understanding of people that is intended in the West. By way of example, we can look at gender. I have mentioned above that a man can be ashamed if seen to be being ordered around by his wife. Presumably so also can a woman re. her husband. Yet the course of centuries has shown men to rebel under the kind of treatment under which women continue to thrive. Hence customary prohibitions designed to avoid shame are more concerned about the undermining of the male than of the female ego. (Readers may not appreciate the use of this kind of logic, which is a key point that this article is making.)

Wise and successful people have negotiated these types of complex processes, but the problem is that people grow old, and eventually die. Once dead, in oral societies, a person’s deeds and wisdom can only be known through recollection and re-telling. Their stories can thus be transformed. Wise people can re-appear in dreams. Contact with them may bode well. But on the flip side of the same coin, people who had a problematic role in community can also reappear in dreams, portending trouble (such as girls who are unhappy/envious of others as a result of having died before experiencing the fulfilment of marriage). Such “jealous spirits” must be dealt with. Strategies for dealing with them, such as slaughtering animals to appease them, have proven effective over centuries and millennia. Other strategies, such as recourse to witchdoctors who endeavor to understand and overcome mystical forces, are desired to counter the envy of others and protect oneself from the horrors of shame. Different countervailing forces always seem to be involved. In due course, one or other of these forces is translated into English using the term God.

Meeting of Worlds

I want to consider what happens when people from the above two “worlds” meet. One “world” prioritizes what is material, where only what is material qualifies to be considered “real.” In the other “world,” material things are not as important as relationship. Material things are an example of just one reward arising from spiritual success. The former is the West, the latter much more closely describes the Africanmuch of Africa. The West has come to Africa. Materially oriented people meet relationally oriented people. What happens?

African people and Western people all want to prosper. Westerners see material means, while Africans see relational means to this desired prosperity. We must remember that relationally oriented people are desirous of material things, and materially oriented people are also desirous of relationship. Materially oriented people (Westerners) may be even more desirous of relationship than are relationally oriented people (Africans). Relationally oriented people may be even more desirous of material things than materially oriented people. We are not discussing whether people desire material things or relationship, but the perceived means of acquiring prosperitythem. To be more accurate, both see material means to relationship and relational means to material, but in the West the material has epistemological priority, while the priority in Africa is by relationship.

In a materially oriented society, people endeavor to articulate the relational as if it is material. Western people try to put social, psychiatric, and other relational issues on a material, i.e. scientific, foundation. Hence we get social sciences, and other disciplines like psychology and anthropology that seek to be “scientific” (Atran 2015). The search for a credible identity as “scientific” follows a denial of subjectivity and spirituality.

The opposite applies to relationally oriented people who understand the origins of “material” in the “relational” realm. They might choose labels in the reverse of those used in the West. For example, instead of “social science” (in which the social is made out to appear scientific), relationally oriented people might use the term “science social” (in which the material is made to appear relational). What might appear from the West to be materially oriented activities are in Africa understood through a “social/spiritual” grid. That is to say, nothing bad can happen without a “relational” cause (Mbiti 1969, 271). Because relationship goes beyond physical presence, when those relationships that are beyond physical presence are articulated, one gets that which is often translated back into English using terms like spirit, mysterious power, and witchcraft.

Because English, the language we are using here, is built on a materially oriented worldview, all our terminology, especially in defining the relationally oriented, is contingent. To use Sharifian’s terminology, the conceptualizations of English that are material “develop among the members of a cultural group over time” (Sharifian 2003, 188). Conceptualizations take “the form of cultural schemas, cultural categories, and cultural metaphors” (Sharifian 2017, 31). However we attempt to use English to describe relationship oriented approaches to life, it will always be inaccurate, an approximation, in some ways misleading. While English is what we have, given that academia is dominated by the UK and the USA, we should remember that terms that might seem simple to us in English may be translating concepts very foreign to the worldviews of English speakers. For example, a term like “spirit” is used to represent an extraordinarily complex relational reality. The term is sometimes used to represent ancestors who can also be given other labels, such as “fallas,” in Aboriginal English (Sharifian 2017). So also witchcraft is used to describe certain impacts of the prevalence of envy (see above), and so on. Here is one reason why it may not be appropriate for a Western person in English to say that spirits or witchcraft do not “exist.” These terms are only labels, for things that are beyond English conceptualization. They “exist” beyond the realm of English.

Intercultural Intervention Re-examined

While European languages like English, that are rooted in (conceptualized by) a material orientation, cannot hope to closely articulate relationally oriented understandings, much of Africa borrows its languages and its educational systems from the West as a complete package. Imposing Western systems, is comparable to imposing advice about playing better football onto people playing a game of tennis. ( I draw my example from within the materially-oriented view, in the hope that it will illustrate something of the difference between the materially oriented and the relationally oriented view.) Such advice will make little sense. Enforcing it will mostly perpetuate confusion. We could say that the more African people adopt Western educational systems, the more confused they can become.

One could say that we are a bit stuck! Western educational systems have been globalized on the basis that their take on the real material world is universal. On that basis African and other people would only have to see the light, so to speak, in order to draw the benefits of the Western education. That was really the secularizing hypothesis, that is somewhat “dead in the water.” The term “secular” has been re-conceptualized beyond the West to mean something very different from its use in Western Europe (Madsen 2011, 266). It was at one time understood that the secular worldview would become the new norm. That required religion to be universal, then to decline. Such is not happening. These days many scholars question that there even is such a universal thing as “religion” (Nongbri 2013, 2). If there is not, neither can there be universal “secular.” If there is no universal secular worldview, then on what is “secular” education founded?

Sharifian considers issues of education in his outlining of cultural linguistics. His focus is on Australia, and especially the situation of indigenous Aboriginal people. Sharifian realizes that simply teaching Aboriginals to be good at standard Australian English is for various reasons unsatisfactory. “International languages do not have expressions that can … capture [local] conceptualizations” Sharifian tells us (2017, 168). Sharifian realizes that “varieties of English may be distinct from each other mainly at the level of cultural conceptualization” (2017, 193/4). For Aboriginal people “English words such as family, home, and shame evoked cultural conceptualizations ... quite different from those of Australian English speakers” (Sharifian 2017, 194). This leads to miscommunication (2017, 197). The kinds of variety in conceptualization that Sharifian finds and refers to are those we have already mentioned above. For example, Aboriginal people consider the land to be a living being (Sharifian 2017, 55), and “use words such as spirit and spiritual when talking about ... their worldview” (Sharifian 2017, 42).

Sharifian roots some of his work in revelations brought by cognitive scientists like Lakoff. Hence he builds on the view that the body (and the context of the body) shape the mind. This “implies a rejection of Cartesian body/mind dualism” on which Western notions of “the secular” have been built (Sharifian 2017, 65). Foundations on which the West has been building are not either universal, or easily universal-izable.

I do not have the space here to give a more detailed undermining of modern Western society’s foundations. I have done so more systematically in my book, The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa (Harries 2017). A pertinent question that I want to raise at this point though is: where to from here? Following the undermining of the foundations of the modern era, I suggest there is only one place to go: that is God, or “religion” in terms of its original meaning as dedication to Christ (Cavanaugh 2009, 64). Faith in Christ was the foundation stone on which Western society was originally built. See for example Berman (1983). Masuzawa indicates that the ways in which Europeans’ historically high value on the church was lost, “constitute …s an intriguing historical conundrum in its own right” (Masuzawa 2005, 23).

Layers of deception have been built up, one on top of another over many decades, that have created superstructures of secularism that many have assumed would permanently hold water. Academics have for over 100 years assumed Christianity to be just one of so many “religions” (Masuzawa 2005). That is now being revealed as wool-over-the-eyes. The sooner prominent leaders in the global community, come to realize this, the better, at least for the sake of the non-West. I almost feel I have to apologize to academics who have been told that accepting the claims of Christ is irrelevant for serious scholarship. I do not make this suggestion lightly. I am aware that it may be taken as harsh criticism by some readers.

Christian Communication

The priority on the secular has, in Western communication with Africa, concealed the priority of the Kingdom of God. The reasoning behind advocating secularism suggests that this avoids conflict between “competing religions.” That reasoning is nullified if we do not have “competing religions.” The roots of secularism are in Christianity. Because secularism is a product of Christianity, in the interests of the benefits of what is nowadays considered to be secularism, Christ should be advocated.

I would like to look at how, in the light of the above discussion, Christian teaching should be engaged by the West. Western discourse tends to assume the existence of a spiritual vs material dualism that is not valid outside of the West. Engagement by the West with people in the majority world who are relationally oriented has assumed that they are materially oriented. This is a source of great confusion.

Much ink has been spilled discussing just how the majority world (our focus is on Africa in this article) is to become “developed.” Development strategies devised by the West, as with Western discourse in general, assume African people to have a perception of the material akin to that of the West. Westerners expect to be able to build on such perception. But what if we are correct that this presupposed foundation for development is absent? In the interests of development, we need to introduce people to an appropriate distinction between the material and the spiritual. Once grasped, this distinction will enable relationally oriented people to build their own development. The result of not taking this distinction into account is unhealthy dependency. This is the nature of almost all “development” practice today. If development strategies are designed by the West or to please the West, they cannot meet the needs of the majority world, even though the majority world may not object, since the subsidy that comes with Western knowledge makes it attractive.

As with development education mentioned above, the same is true with Western models of discipleship training. The paradigm of training that “succeeds” in much of Africa today is determined squarely by the quantity of funds that can be raised in the West. Theological education is valued for links that it provides to the West. The same process continues and will continue as long as new and old initiatives thrive only on Western money. Any indigenous program of education has almost zero chance of getting anywhere, so hegemonic and so relatively materially attractive can be the subsidized foreign version. Yet it is the indigenous program running in an indigenous language that just might allow the local church to grow on its own foundation. Foreign subsidy of Western non-contextualized education ends up hammering the lid ever more tightly against any efforts at indigenously powered development, inside or outside of the church. (See Harries 2017a.)

Educational programs, theological and other, will not in today’s world be able to escape Western influence. Sharifian advocates, it seems, stretching standard Australian English so that it incorporates Aboriginal English (2017, 223). Because one language used by one community cannot represent two distinct worldviews, the resulting English would as a result have to forgo its material orientation, which action would impede communication with other global native English users. We are left with a catch 22. What is absolutely necessary also seems to be impossible. We might be wise to take a leaf from Genesis 11 and the account of the Tower of Babel regarding the advisability of multilingualism where we have multiple cultures. Use of English makes it nigh-on impossible to take indigenous non-Western conceptualizations and categories seriously. Saving a language can be saving a people. Majority world governments may be right in their efforts at terminating certain benevolent programs that may seem to the West to be faultless, but are designed using Western languages. (A good example of this is the opposition being met by African governments to Bridge schools [https://qz.com/864375/zuckerberggates-backed-bridge-international-is-battling-to-teach-africas-children/]). Western educational conceptualizations do not fit relationally oriented contexts. An ongoing dominance by English will, I suggest, leave everyone else dumb and only original native speakers understanding and in control of global governance, never mind Christian theology.

The apparent impossibility of the above task shouldn’t deter champions from bucking the trend (White 2009, 217-18). How many non-Aboriginal Australians are fluent speakers of Aboriginal languages? Let there be more. How many Westerners in Africa are fluent in African languages? Far too few. The scarcity of serious engagement on the side of the West with non-European languages is close to theoretical suicide. The absence of even one global language whose categories make sense to the majority world, i.e. non-Western, categorization and conceptualization, is inexcusable. In Africa at least, there is enormous dominance over African languages by European languages that do not make sense of indigenous worldviews. It seems that almost the only witness left to Western Christians engaging with African people is that of their prosperity. Reese points out that declaring of the prosperity Gospel may be totally inadvertent on the part of the Western Christians (Reese 2010, 63). Witness to biblical faith should be through one’s life, lived transparently and demonstrating God’s holiness, in a way that people can understand, i.e. by engaging their categories and conceptualizations. This can result in bringing people to be disciples (apprentices) of the Kingdom of God, led by and into what they can understand.


This article has critiqued the ways in which English has been imposed, onto non-Western people. I hope readers will understand that for many of his the above insights this author isI am drawing on interactions I have had with oral non-literate communities for many years. The global hegemonic use of European languages is preventing the development of the academic literature in indigenous languages from which I should be drawing. Hence the appeal in this paper, as from the margins, to curtail such hegemonic oppression.

Many Westerners believe that their wisdom—that only material things are really-real—is superior to that of others on the globe. African wisdom is focused on ways of avoiding shame and negative impacts of envy. There is no level playing field on which materially oriented (Western) and relationally oriented (African) people can meet. Attempts to engage inter-culturally on a foundation originating on one side, e.g. on the assumption that secularism is a basic to human existence, leave endless contradictions in place. As once widely acknowledged, so here again proposed, this article advocates for recognition of God’s unique role as cross-cultural arbiter between human societies.

For Further Reading

Jim Harries’ related articles:
“African Development and Dependency in the Light of Post-Modern Epistemology”

“How One Scholarship in One Language Cannot Cross Continents: between Europe and Africa “


Atran, Scott. 2015. Psychology, Anthropology, and a Science of Human Beings. Social Evolution Forum. January 25. Accessed April 6, 2017. https://evolution-institute.org/blog/psychology-anthropology-and-a-science-of-human-beings/.

Berman, Harold Joseph. 1983. Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cavanaugh, William T. 2009. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harries, Jim. 2012. “Witchcraft, Envy, Development, and Christian Mission in Africa.” Missiology: An International Review 40, no. 2: 129-39.

Harries, Jim. 2017a. “Enabling the Majority World to Benefit from ‘Superior’ Western Theology.” Currents in Theology and Mission 44, no. 2 (April): 1. Accessed August 11, 2017. http://currentsjournal.org/index.php/currents/article/view/64/82.

Harries, Jim. 2017b.(in press) The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Madsen, Richard. 2011. Secularism, religious change, and social conflict in Asia. In Rethinking Secularism, ed. Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, 248-69. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. 2005. The Invention of World Religions: How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. London: University of Chicago Press.

Mbiti, John S. 1969. African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann.

Nongbri, Brent. 2013. Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. London: Yale University Press.

Reese, Robert. 2010. Roots and Remedies of the Dependency Syndrome in World Missions. Pasadena: William Carey Library.

Sharifian, Farzad. 2003. “On Cultural Conceptualisations.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 30, no. 3: 187-209.

Sharifian, Farzad et. al. 2012. “Understanding Stories My Way: Aboriginal English Speaking Students’ (Mis)understanding of School Literacy Materials in Australian English.” A project of the Two-way Literacy and Learning.

White, Robert A. 2009. “Research on Communication for Development in Africa: Current Debates.” African Communication Research 2, no.2: 203-52.

Jim Harries (b. 1964) has engaged in detailed research into inter-cultural communication between the West and Africa since 1988. He has a PhD in Theology (University of Birmingham, UK). Jim’s home, located in a Kenyan village, functions in African languages, as does his practice of Bible teaching, which is his main local ministry. Jim has published seven books and numerous articles. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission ( http://www.vulnerablemission.org ).

Jim Harries (b. 1964) has engaged in detailed research into inter-cultural communication between the West and Africa since 1988. He has a PhD in Theology (University of Birmingham, UK). Jim’s home, located in a Kenyan village, functions in African languages, as does his practice of Bible teaching, which is his main local ministry. Jim has published seven books and numerous articles. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission (http://www.vulnerablemission.org).